I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province). I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the focus groups and interviews that I conducted! Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.
The premises underlying my research were that:
- all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
- frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
- hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
- China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them
The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail. However, the following seem particularly pertinent
- The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs. ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
- Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access. There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
- Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men. I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
- There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
- Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
- Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
- There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
- For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with
- There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
- There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
- Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
- Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
- There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
- Security code challenges are important for blind people
- Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
- A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
- Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further
There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities. Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality